Maintaining the theme of fiction set in the less well known theatres of warfare in World War Two, I have just read I Can’t Begin to Tell You by Elizabeth Buchan. Given the fast moving pace of the novel and the adventures of the heroine Kay I wondered if the writer was in any way related to John Buchan of The 39 Steps fame. In fact she married his grandson.
The book has twin narratives which do combine by the end. The first is the story of Kay married to a Danish landowner Bror who has a large estate Roselund in Zealand and joins the Danish resistance. Denamrk was a Nazi protectorate. It was never taken militarily but ceded to Nazi governance. The reason for this is reflected in the standpoint of Bror who thought resistance futile and wished to preserve his estate. The difference in stance put an intolerable strain on their marriage.
The second theme is set in the United Kingdom and covers the girls who worked in signals receiving messages sent by SOE operatives from transmitters. One operator Ruby believes the system of code based on a poem to be fatally flawed and indeed the SOE person dropped into Denmark code named Vinegar to be compromised. Another operator Mary is receiving his/her messages. Although she does not know that person’s identity she feels a powerful empathy for him. It is Ruby who first suspects that the Germans have taken over the tranmitting; much of the explanation of war time signalling is rather technical and I must admit went over my head, or perhaps the writing was insufficiency clear.
The novel is certainly a page-turner with the omnipresent fear that Kay will be captured and suffer a terrible fate. Her family, especially her daughter Tanne, are drawn into the conflict. The description of a society divided by acquiescence and resistance is especially successful.
The main fault of the novel is the characterisation. In short it is long on plot, weak on character development. The four central characters Kay, Mary, Ruby and Tanne are hard to visualise. I felt that the writer is making a feminist statement as Ruby, a brilliant mathematician, is frustrated by the lack of attention given to her concerns in a male dominated establishment. The author is in on better ground when dealing wih the emotions these women all experience.
The historical research is not as profound as Alex Preston’s In Love and War nor are the characters as three dimensional as in Curtain Call but it’s a gripping read from a writers worthy of her name.